Responsible for countless design classics including the Kenwood mixer and the Type 75 Anglepoise lamp, the legendary industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange had transformed the domestic architecture of Britain long before we asked him to turn his attention to speakers.
We talked to him about his relationship with John Bowers, and his inspiration for the 40th anniversary Signature Diamond speaker.
Why did you use marble in the design for Bowers & Wilkins’ Signature Diamond speakers?
“It’s a fantastic material in acoustic terms, totally inert and solid. And in the factory nowadays, even complex marble shapes can be repeated by computer-controlled marble cutting. Can you imagine such a thing? Every single one comes out perfectly, so the acoustic quality is absolutely consistent between one speaker and the next.
It’s wonderful to see. Next time you want to treat yourself to a day out, skip Disneyland and go to the speaker factory, that’s what I say.
Is sound equipment furniture or is it a tool?
Sound and sound systems occupy an interesting position in the landscape of the home, I think. Many years ago, with marvellous good luck, I was introduced to John Bowers, who had started Bowers & Wilkins; and he was one of the world’s great enthusiasts. He loved music and he was absolutely barmy about quality. At that time, there was quite a solid tradition of how speakers looked. They were boxes, packed with increasingly complex electronics. The box was the dominating form. And the box is not an unusual thing in the living room. We have boxes with drinks in, we have boxes with videos and games in and so on. So the box, or cabinet, is a natural part of furniture. And I think it poses the first big question about whether hi-fi is a piece of equipment or whether it is a piece of furniture.
That is the designer’s dilemma and the manufacturer’s dilemma. There’s also the question of who chooses. Most men think they dominate in choosing the sound system. But the rest of the family still has quite a profound effect on just how far you are allowed to intrude your peculiar interest into their living room. So that has been an influence on how far equipment becomes furniture. Then, as homes have got bigger, as even whole rooms have been dedicated to one person’s hobby, so you see the change in the design of the equipment towards being overtly sound-driven as opposed to furniture-driven.
So, from your point of view, has it always been important to make it furniture rather than very visibly function-led, or do you find a way of doing both at the same time?
When I met him, John Bowers was feeling his way towards asserting the importance of the sound system. Things were moving towards being less like furniture and more like equipment. But at the same time, like all designers, I wanted to be able to live with my own designs and I could begin to see the possibility of forms that were generous enough and had enough stature to be furniture, but with an uncommonness that marked them out as specialist functional pieces of equipment.
One of the things that has happened is the change in the scale of sound equipment. At one time cabinets were very big indeed. And then they became much smaller and now people are beginning to think of them almost as a work of art or a beautiful object. How has your thinking developed about how the cabinet is presented?
One of the most rewarding parts of my life has been to work with companies that have enough stature and enough scope to touch different sorts of environments. And in those environments, to come across different attitudes and different expectations on the part of the consumer. And a company like Bowers & Wilkins, in the time that I have worked for it, has moved from being highly specialised and expensive towards covering a much larger spectrum of users. That, in turn, has meant different influences upon the product’s nature and its personality. And it’s been marvellous to see more dramatic and perhaps even eccentric things coming into the landscape. Like Nautilus. It’s as wacky as hell, really. But it did redefine sound quality.